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Phenomenography is a qualitative research methodology, within the interpretivist paradigm, that investigates the qualitatively different ways in which people experience something or think about something (Ference Marton, 1986). Phenomenography, an approach to educational research that appeared in publications in the early 1980s (Marton, 1981; 1986), initially emerged from an empirical rather than theoretical or philosophical basis (Åkerlind, 2005).

Phenomenography’s ontological assumptions are subjectivist: The world exists and different people construe it in different ways; and with a non-dualist viewpoint: There is only one world, one that is ours, and one that people experience in many different ways (Bowden, 2005; Marton & Booth, 1997). Phenomenography’s research object has the character of knowledge, therefore, in this case and in the general sense, the ontological assumptions also become the epistemological assumptions (Svensson, 1997), or, to put that another way, the epistemological position is represented by the ontological position (Uljens, 1996). The emphasis is on description, implying an assumption about the importance of and the need for description. The importance is related to an understanding of knowledge as a matter of meaning and similarities and differences in meaning (Svensson, 1997). Starting with a description follows from the assumption that, in the case of conceptions, these form both the results of and conditions for human activity, and clarification is dependent upon focussing on the meaning of the conceptions themselves (Svensson, 1997). The object of study is not the phenomenon per se, but the relationships between the actors and the phenomenon (Bowden, 2005).

A phenomenographic analysis seeks a "description, analysis, and understanding of … experiences” (Marton, 1981, p. 180). The focus is on variation: variation in both the perceptions of the phenomenon as experienced by the actor, and in the “ways of seeing something” as experienced and described by the researcher (Pang, 1999:1). This is described as phenomenography’s “theory of variation” (Pang, 1999:1). Phenomenography allows the researcher to use their own experiences as data for phenomenographic analysis (Roger Säljö, 1996; Uljens, 1996). Phenomenography aims for a collective analysis of individual experiences (Åkerlind, 2005).

Phenomenography is not phenomenology. Both phenomenography and phenomenology have human experience as its object; however, phenomenology is a philosophical method, with the philosopher engaged in investigating their own experience (Marton & Booth, 1997). Phenomenographers, on the other hand, adopt an empirical orientation, and then investigate the experience of others (Marton & Booth, 1997). The focus of interpretive phenomenology is the essence of the phenomenon, whereas the focus of phenomenography is the essence of the experiences and subsequent perceptions of the phenomenon (Hitchcock, 2006). Data collection methods typically include close interviews with a small, purposive sample with the researcher “working toward an articulation of the interviewee’s reflections on experience that is as complete as possible” (Marton & Booth, 1997:130).

A phenomenographic data analysis sorts these perceptions, which emerge from the data collected, into specific ‘categories of description’ (Åkerlind, 2005; Marton, 1981; 1986; Uljens, 1996). These categories (and the underlying structure) become the phenomenographic essence of the phenomenon (Uljens, 1996). They are the primary outcomes, and the most important result of phenomenographic research (Marton, 1986). Phenomenographic categories are logically related to one another, typically by way of hierarchically inclusive relationships (Marton, 1986; Marton & Booth, 1997). The process is strongly iterative and comparative involving the continual sorting and resorting of data and ongoing comparisons between data and the developing categories of description, as well as between the categories themselves (Åkerlind 2005).


Åkerlind, G. (2005). Variation and commonality in phenomenographic research methods. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(4), 321-334.

Bowden, J. (2005). Reflections on the phenomenographic research process. In Doing Developmental Phenomenography, J. Bowden & P. Green (Eds). Qualitative Research Methods Series. Melbourne, Victoria: RMIT University Press.

Hitchcock, L. (2006): Methodology in computing education: a focus on experiences. Proceedings of the 19th Annual NACCQ Conference, 7th-10th July, 2006, Wellington New Zealand.

Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography - describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10(1981), 177-200.

Marton, F. (1986). Phenomenography - A research approach investigating different understandings of reality. Journal of Thought, 21(2), 28-49.

Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and Awareness. New Jersey: Lawerence Erlbaum Associates.

Pang, M. (1999). Two faces of variation: On continuity in the phenomenographic movement. Paper presented at the 8th Biennial Conference of the European Association for Research in Learning and Instruction, Goteborg, 1999.

Säljö, R. (1996). Minding action - conceiving of the world versus participating in cultural practices. In Dall'Alba & Hasselgren (Eds.), Reflections on phenomenography - towards a methodology? Goteborg: Acta Universtatis Gothoburgensis.

Svensson, L. 1997, Theoretical foundations of phenomenography. Higher Education Research & Development, 16(2): 159-171.

Uljens, M. (1996). On the philosophical foundation of phenomenography. In G. Dall'Alba & B. Hasselgren (Ed.), Reflections on Phenomenography (pp. 105-130). Goteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothenburgensis.